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Chapter 7: the lighter side

‘Sambo's right to be kilt’: colored troops at drill—Vicksburg, 1864.


To illustrate ‘Sambo's right to be kilt’: guard of colored troops at the provost-marshal's—Beaufort, North Carolina, 1864 A beautiful Southern mansion stands in flickering shadows of walnut and elm and white oak, and in front are some of the negro troops that have been formed from ‘contrabands.’ The passions of the period waxed particularly bitter over the question of employing Negroes in warfare. Charles Graham Halpine comes to the rescue, in his poem that follows on page 176, with a saving sense of Irish humor. He suggests that ‘men who object to Sambo should take his place and fight.’ As for himself, he will object not at all “if Sambo's body [175] should stop a ball that was coming for me direct.” This recalls Artemas Ward's announcement of his own patriotism, which he said he had carried so far that he was willing for all his wife's relatives to go to the front! The human side of this problem helps to solve it, as with others. Certainly, the line above presents a firm and soldierly front. Many of the colored regiments came to be well-disciplined and serviceable. Their bravery is attested by the loss of life at Battery Wagner and in the charges at the Petersburg crater.



The lighter side: Sambo's right to be kilt

This effusion has a curious historical value. Charles Graham Halpine, an Irishman in birth and training, had established himself in literary work in New York when the war broke out. He enlisted in a three months regiment and continued on the staff of different officers, where he attracted attention for his executive ability. In 1862 he was on the staff of General David Hunter at Hilton head, South Carolina. General Hunter organized the first regiment of negro troops to be mustered into the Federal service. This proceeding created serious alarm in Congress, and great excitement over the country. Halpine contributed this humorous treatment of the contested subject to the New York Herald over the signature of ‘private miles O'Reilly.’

Some tell us 'tis a burnina shame
To make the naygers fight;
Ana that the thrade of beina kilt
Belongs but to the white:
But as for me, upon my sowl!
So liberal are we here,
I'll let Sambo be murthered instead of myself
On every day in the year.
On every day in the year, boys,
And in every hour of the day;
The right to be kilt I'll divide wid him,
Ana divil a word I'll say.

In battle's wild commotion
I shouldn't at all object
If Sambo's body should stop a ball
That was comina for me direct;
And the prod of a Southern bagnet,
So ginerous are we here,
I'll resign, and let Sambo take it
On every day in the year.
On every day in the year, boys,
And wid none oa your nasty pride,
All my right in a Southern bagnet prod
Wid Sambo I'll divide!


‘I'll let Sambo be Murthered instead of myself’: colored infantry at Fort Lincoln, 1862 This picture possesses especial interest as the subject of the following comment by Major George Haven Putnam (a contributor to Volume I of this history) from his experience as a Federal officer in charge of colored troops: Late in the war, when the Confederacy was sadly in need of fresh supplies of men, the proposition was more than once brought up in the Confederate Congress and elsewhere for the arming of the slaves or of a selection of the slaves. But such a step was never ventured upon. On the Northern side, as early as 1862, regiments were formed of the colored residents of the North, the first two being the famous Fifty-fourth and Fifty-fifth Massachusetts. These men represented, of course, a fairly high average of intelligence and of education, and they did brilliant fighting. In the course of the succeeding two years many regiments were organized out of the plantation negroes as they made their way across into Federal lines, or as Federal control extended over plantation country. These men also rendered earnest, faithful, and usually effective service. They lacked, as was quite natural, individual initiative. They did not do good fighting in a skirmish-line. They wanted to be in touch, shoulder to shoulder, and within immediate reach of the commander's word; but there is hardly an instance in which, when once under fire, they did not fulfil their duty pluckily and persistently. The army rosters show that more than 150,000 colored men fought under the Stars and Stripes.

[178] The men who object to Sambo
Should take his place and fight;
And it's betther to have a nayger's hue
Than a liver that's wake ana white.
Though Sambo's black as the ace of spades,
His finger a thrigger can pull,
And his eye runs sthraight on the barrel-sights
From undher its thatch of wool.
So hear me all, boys darlina,
Don't think I'm tippina you chaff,
The right to be kilt we'll divide wid him,
And give him the largest half!

The year of jubilee

According to common report a body of negro troops sang these words as they entered Richmond on the morning of April 3, 1865. George Cary Eggleston adds a special interest to the song:
it is an interesting fact, illustrative of the elasticity of spirit shown by the losers in the great contest, that the song, which might have been supposed to be peculiarly offensive to their wounded pride and completely out of harmony with their deep depression and chagrin, became at once a favorite among them, and was sung with applause by young men and maidens in well nigh every house in Virginia.

Say, darkeys, hab you seen de massa,
Wid de muffstash on he face,
Go long de road some time dis mornina,
Like he gwine leabe de place?
He see de smoke way up de ribber
Whar de Lincum gunboats lay;
He took he hat ana leff berry sudden,
And I spose he's runned away.
De massa run, ha, ha!
De darkey stay, ho, ho!
It mus' be now de kingdum comina,
Ana de yar ob jubilo.


‘And his eye runs Sthraight on the barrel sights’ These Negro pickets near Dutch Gap Canal in 1864 were posing proudly for their photograph, unconscious that they were illustrating Halpine's line so closely. The natural love of the Negro for imitating the white folks was not the only trait that distinguished the colored troops at Dutch Gap. Work on the canal proved to be very dangerous. The Confederate sharpshooters in the vicinity were continually firing at the men from tree-tops, and several mortars were continually dropping bombs among the squads, who had to seek refuge in dug-outs. In the fall of 1864 most of the labor was performed by colored troops. General P. S. Michie reports that they ‘displayed the greatest courage and fortitude, and maintained under the most trying circumstances their usual good humor and cheerful disposition.’ Such a record may encourage their well-wishers.

[180] He six foot one way ana two foot todder,
Ana he weigh six hundred pouna;
His coat so big he couldn't pay de tailor,
Ana it won't reach half way rouna;
He drill so much dey calls him cap'n,
Ana he git so mighty tanned,
I spec he'll try to fool dem Yankees,
For to tink he contraband.
De massa run, ha, ha!
De darkey stay, ho, ho!
It mus' be now de kingdum comina,
Ana de yar ob jubilo.

De darkeys got so lonesome libb'n
In de log hut on de lawn,
Dey moved dere tings into massa's parlor
For to keep it while he gone.
Dar's wine and cider in de kitchin,
Ana de darkeys dey hab some,
I spec it will be all fiscated
When de Lincum sojers come.
De massa run, ha, ha!
De darkey stay, ho, ho!
It mus' be now de kingdum comina,
Ana de yar ob jubilo.

De oberseer he makes us trubble,
Ana he dribe us rouna a spell,
We lock him up in de smoke-house cellar,
Wid de key flung in de well.
De whip am lost, de hana — cuff broke,
But de massy hab his pay;
He big ana ole enough for to know better
Dan to went ana run away.
De massa run, ha, ha!
De darkey stay, ho, ho!
It mus' be now de kingdum comina,
Ana de yar ob jubilo.

Henry Clay Work. [181]

Negro teamsters near Butler's signal tower, Bermuda hundred, 1864

The history and nature of ‘contraband of war,’ so expressively illustrated by this photograph, are thus explained by George Haven Putnam: Early in the war, General Benjamin F. Butler invented the term ‘contraband,’ which came to be accepted as the most convenient classification for the colored refugee who had made his way within the Federal lines and who, while no longer a slave or a piece of property, was not yet accepted as a person. It was the legal theory of Butler that the property rights in the refugee who had been a slave had, under war conditions, been annulled. Throughout the war, the information of happenings within the enemy's lines was frequently enough brought to our headquarters by the (more or less) ‘intelligent contraband.’ As far as my experience goes, the colored reporter was always willing and eager to help. I know of no single instance on record in which false or misleading information was knowingly given by the colored man; but this information was, nevertheless, in a large number of cases by no means trustworthy. The darkey had no capacity for accuracy of observation or for precision of statement. An enormous allowance had to be made for his imagination when he was describing to us the number of the enemy's troops that were in position or that possibly were advancing to the attack. His imagination worked most frequently on the apprehensive side. His experience had made hopefulness somewhat difficult for him.




Unexpected civility

The following incident, which occurred soon after General Grant's arrival at Chattanooga in October, 1863, is related by General Horace Porter in his entertaining and valuable reminiscences, Campaigning with Grant:

As soon as communication had been opened with our base of supplies, General Grant manifested an eagerness to acquaint himself minutely with the position of the enemy, with a view to taking the offensive. One morning he started toward our right, with several staff officers, to make a personal examination of that portion of the line. When he came in sight of Chattanooga Creek, which separated our pickets from those of the enemy, he directed those who had accompanied him to halt and remain out of sight while he advanced alone, which he supposed he could do without attracting much attention. The pickets were within hailing distance of one another on opposite banks of the creek. They had established a temporary truce on their own responsibility, and the men of each army were allowed to get water from the same stream without being fired upon by those on the other side. A sentinel of our picket-guard recognized General Grant as he approached, and gave the customary cry, ‘Turn out the guard—commanding general!’ The enemy on the opposite side of the creek evidently heard the words, and one of his sentinels cried out, ‘Turn out the guard—General Grant!’ The Confederate guard took up the joke, and promptly formed, facing our line, and presented arms. The General returned the salute by lifting his hat, the guard was then dismissed, and he continued his ride toward our left. We knew that we were engaged in a Civil War, but such civility exceeded our expectations.

The aged stranger: an incident of the war

‘I was with Grant’—the stranger said;
Said the farmer, ‘Say no more,
But rest thee here at my cottage porch,
For thy feet are weary and sore.’ [183]

Illustration for ‘the year of jubilee’

The crinoline of the old ‘auntie’ in the center and the quaint sunbonnets of her companions are distinguishing marks of the war-time scene—a Mississippi plantation, where the darkies have gathered to relieve some of the lonesomeness of which Work writes. It was one of the noteworthy features of the war that the people who, before the conflict, had been supposed to be on the point of rising and inaugurating a race-war, remained quietly at work on the large plantations. Frequently only women were left to direct the labor of the slaves. Several diaries from various parts of the South tell of the continued affection and even devotion of these colored people. It is only of the close of the war that the scenes in The year of Jubilee can be imagined. But the picture above is typical of all the four years of the conflict and of later negro life.

‘De Darkeys got so lonesome’


‘I was with Grant’—the stranger said;
Said the farmer, ‘Nay, no more,—
I prithee sit at my frugal board,
And eat of my humble store.’

‘How fares my boy,—my soldier boy,
Of the old Ninth Army Corps?
I warrant he bore him gallantly
In the smoke and battle's roar!’

‘I know him not,’ said the aged man,
‘And, as I remarked before,
I was with Grant’—‘Nay, nay, I know,’
Said the farmer, ‘say no more:’

‘He fell in battle,—I see, alas!
Thou 'dst smooth these tidings o'er,—
Nay, speak the truth, whatever it be,
Though it rend my bosom's core.

‘How fell he,—with his face to the foe,
Upholding the flag he bore?
Oh, say not that my boy disgraced
The uniform that he wore!’

‘I cannot tell,’ said the aged man,
‘And should have remarked before,
That I was with Grant,—in Illinois,—
Some three years before the war.’

Then the farmer spake him never a word,
But beat with his fist full sore
That aged man, who had worked for Grant
Some three years before the war.

Gay and happy still’

The ex-confederate of twenty-four, just released from Point Lookout prison, put into the passage quoted (from his novel, Tiger Lilies) the kind of humor which appears in the familiar song and which had sustained Lee's ragged veterans during the preceding four hard years. (see page 188)


Imposing officers and foreign attaches who unbend between battles—Falmouth, Virginia, April, 1863 Lest the reader suppose the life of the Civil War soldier was unrelieved by any sallies of playfulness, these photographs of 1863 are reproduced. No schoolboys in their wildest larks could engage in a struggle of more mock-desperate nature than that waged by these officers of the Army of the Potomac, with the English, French, and Austrian attaches come to report to their Governments how Americans made war. Boxes and chairs have been scattered hither and yon; swords are slashing in deadly combat; bottles are wielded by some in the hand-to-hand melee. The burly attache at the right is even preparing to dig a grave for the unfortunate slain in the combat.


At the sutler's store: a lifelike group A high degree of artistic feeling and skill was shown by the war photographer who preserved this band of joking soldiers beside a sutler's store. Few photographic feats are as difficult, even to-day, as the successful portraying of such a number of different subjects, in poses so remarkably diversified, and under such abrupt color contrasts of light and shadow. Evidently, the army was in a permanent Camp when this picture was taken; for it was then that the sutlers would open up their stocks of canned goods, soft drinks, playing cards, handkerchiefs, paper collars, and such luxuries, enjoyed by the boys of 1861 only at infrequent intervals. Sometimes the soldiers rebelled against the storekeeper's extortionate prices, and once in a while, on the eve of a forward movement, they would sack the little shanty of its contents by way of reprisal.


Camp humor: Facetiousness of a sutler with the western armies The signs about this sutler's store in Tennessee display the rude wit of the soldier in camp. The name over the little shanty contains an affectation of French elegance that is amusing even to-day. The misspelling in the announcement, ‘Meels at all Ours,’ may not have appealed to all the frequenters as strongly as to us, but the imposing declaration that it was kept on the European plan came to be understood by everyone. There was no humor at all in some of the signs, such as the warning over the door ‘No Tick,’ as many a lad with empty pockets must have found when he felt very thirsty for ‘Xxxx Ale.’ No one can be so sure of the other sign ‘No Licker Sold to Soljers.’ Probably the arrangements could be made in the dark of the moon for suspension of this grim regulation. The sutler's store was a center of the social life of the squad in off hours. Here they would gather to chat over the events of the last campaign, to compare notes on the various leaders, to discuss the probabilities of the next advance, and to swap yarns from all possible sources.

[188] Lieutenant Flemington spurred his horse forward and turned him round full-face to the party.

‘Gentlemen, there's some mistake about all this!’ said he, as the men stopped, laughing at a puzzled expression which overspread his face: “for whereas, this honorable company of six has been for three years or more toilsomely marching on foot with an infantry regiment—but now rides good horses: and whereas, this honorable company of six has been for three years feeding upon hard-tack and bacon which grew continually harder and also less and wormier—but now devours Virginia biscuit and spring-chickens and ham and eggs and—and all the other things that came on, and went off, the table at mine host's of the Court House this morning . . . and whereas, we have hitherto draggled along in pantaloons that we could put on a dozen ways by as many holes, have worn coats that afforded no protection to anything but the insects congregated in the seams of the same, have had shirts that—shirts that—that—at any rate we have had shirts-but now do fare forth prankt in all manner of gorgeous array, such as gray jackets with fillimagree on the sleeves of 'em, and hussar-breeches, and cavalry-boots, and O shade of Jones of Georgia! with spurs to boot and clean white collars to neck: and whereas, we have been accustomed to think a mud-hole a luxury in the way of beds, and have been wont to beg Heaven as its greatest boon to man, not to let the cavalry ride over us without waking us up to see 'em do it—but now do sleep between white sheets without fear of aught but losing our senses from sleeping so intensely: and whereas, finally, all these things are contrary to the ordinary course of nature and are not known save as dim recollections of a previous state of existence in itself extremely hypothetical, therefore, be it resolved and it is hereby resolved:

‘Unanimously,’ from the five.

‘That this-figure-at present on this horse and clothed with these sumptuous paraphernalia of pompous war, is not B. Chauncey Flemington, that is to say (to borrow a term from the German metaphysics) is Not-Me, that this horse is not my horse, this paraphernalia not my paraphernalia, that para-ditto not your para-ditto, that this road is no road, and the whole affair a dream or phantasmagory of the Devil for no purpose but to embitter the waking from it.’

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